Voting began Friday in a part of Russia-controlled Ukraine in a referendum that Russia is expected to use to justify annexing four regions, with a Ukrainian official saying voting was mandatory.
“Voting has begun for the referendum on the Zaporizhzhia region which becomes part of Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are returning home! Good God, friends!” said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian-backed administration of that region.
Referendums have been widely condemned by the West as illegitimate and precursors to illegal annexation.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, said that in the Russian city of Bilovodsk, the head of a company told employees that the referendum was mandatory and that those who refused to vote would be fired and their name would be provided to the security services.
He said that in the city of Starobilsk, Russian authorities have banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday and that armed groups have been sent to search homes and force people out to participate in the referendum.
Voting in the four regions of the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which represent about 15% of the Ukrainian territory, is expected to take place from Friday to Tuesday.
The votes come after Ukraine recaptured large swaths of territory in a counteroffensive this month, seven months after Russia invaded and launched a war that killed thousands, displaced millions and damaged the global economy.
The referendums had been debated by pro-Moscow authorities for months, but Ukraine’s recent victories have prompted officials to rush to schedule them.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, Moscow appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the conflict.
Russia argues that it is an opportunity for people in the region to express their point of view.
“Since the beginning of the operation … we have said that the peoples of their respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their own destiny,” the Russian Foreign Minister said this week. Sergei Lavrov.
Ukraine says Russia intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its 2014 takeover of Crimea, which the international community has not recognized.
By incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could justify the military escalation needed to defend its territory. Putin on Wednesday said Russia “will use all means at our disposal” to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
“The invasion of Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Dmitry Medvedev, president of Russia from 2008 to 2012, said in a post on Telegram.
The results of the referendum in favor of Russia are considered inevitable. The vote in Crimea in 2014, criticized internationally for being rigged, had an official 97% result in favor of formal annexation.
The referendums were denounced by world leaders including United States President Joe Biden, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“Sham referendums” are “illegitimate and illegal,” NATO said.
The OSCE, which monitors the elections, said the results would have no legal value because they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and the areas are not safe.
There will be no independent observers and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region partially occupied by Moscow in 2014, as independent states.
Ukraine and the West consider all parts of Ukraine to be illegally occupied by Russian forces. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only about 60% of the Donetsk region in Russian hands.
Ukraine said the referendums were a sign that Russia was scared. “Any decision that the Russian leadership may make changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Thursday.
“We are strictly interested in the tasks we face. This is the liberation of our country, the defense of our people and the mobilization of world support (public opinion) to carry out those tasks.”
Putin says Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Russia from NATO.
Kiev and the West call Russia’s actions an imperialist and unprovoked attempt to recapture a country that shook off Russian rule with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Ukrainian general staff said that Russia has launched attacks in the Donetsk region and that Ukrainian bombings have injured a Russian general in the Luhansk region.
“The enemy continues to take losses, particularly among executives,” he said Friday.
Russia reportedly lost several high-ranking commanders during the seven-month war.
The leader of the Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk denounced the Ukrainian attacks as “cynical barbarian bombings” aimed at causing as much harm to civilians as possible.
“That is why we want to act quickly and with greater determination with measures such as the organization of the referendum,” said Denis Pushilin.
Reuters is unable to verify battlefield reports.
© Thomson Reuters 2022.